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The value of a learning culture has bypassed most B2B marketing departments. They're missing out on a hugely powerful asset...

There's a never-ending dialogue about the difference between B2B and B2C marketing. For me, it's always been a bit of a spurious debate (the two clearly overlap on almost all dimensions). But one thing does seem annoyingly true of B2B marketing departments compared to their consumer peers: B2B departments don't learn.

A new CMO walking into her new job in a B2B company ought to be able to ask for the 'Book of Learning' and be given a big, fat ring binder (or wiki URL).

One section might be on SEO and keyphrases; another might be on offers, promotions or campaigns that have worked or flopped; there would be a section on the state of relationships with the most influential bloggers and analysts; one summarising the results of all the multivariate tests that have been run; one on landing pages; one on email response rates; another on social media...

But there is no such thing. B2B marketers tend to stumble from one year to the next condemned to repeat their mistakes and forego the opportunities that learning creates.

This may be true of many consumer marketing departments too, but in the age of digital and e-commerce, it's much less likely. There's just too much at stake and the consequences of every action are too obvious and public.

Maybe the long sales cycle in many B2B markets is the culprit. Or the (unsustainable) lack of communication between marketing and sales. Or (God forbid) it's down to the calibre of the average B2B marketer. But in my 25+ years in B2B marketing, I can count the number of true learning cultures on one hand, without dropping my iPhone.

What a learning culture looks like

A learning culture is one in which learning is an explicit company goal. It's one that recognises that, in the digital era, we're all lab rats; so we need someone with a white coat and clipboard to take a few notes. A learning culture does things like this:

  • Includes learning in the 'goals' section of every plan – not just 'what do we want to achieve' but also 'what do we hope to learn' from this program.
  • Practices post-mortems – learning organisations build in a review after just about every activity to capture the learning.
  • Includes learning in every job description and performance review – make it clear that everyone needs to be actively helping the whole group get better and better at everything.
  • Never stops testing – in Digital Land, we can test everything that moves. Why wouldn't we? Celebrate flops – they're never complete wastes of time and energy, they're at the very least hugely valuable learning experiences.
  • Publicises lessons – learning is useless if it isn't shared openly.
  • Captures experiences formally – okay, maybe not a ring binder, but if it isn't written down somewhere, it doesn't really exist.

As a B2B agency, we can be as guilty of letting the learning machine slow down as any client-side marketing team. But we do fight this tendency. Our recent Project Open Kimono is one example -- a living B2B case study tracking our most recent content marketing campaign: the B2B Marketing Manifesto.

Just running Project Open Kimono has reminded us of the value of learning and how important lessons can hide behind the general, broad-brush sweep of a campaign (unless they're ferreted out).

It's never too late

The good thing about the value of learning is that the dividends start whenever you get serious about it. So even if you've never written down a single lesson before, you can get up to speed quite quickly. Start building learning goals into your plans.

Assign one person to be the social media learner and another the SEO learner. Make sure they capture all lessons and share them. Start a wiki. Revise those job descriptions and reviews. The rewards are almost instant -- not just in continuously improving results, but in a new mindset that actively looks to get better tall the time.

Doug Kessler

Published 1 November, 2010 by Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is a founder and Creative Director of B2B marketing agency Velocity and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

19 more posts from this author

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Jason Ball

Good points Doug and entirely consistent with my own experiences. In their defence, I think many B2B marketers are caught in a pretty tricky situation. Objectives often change on a quarter by quarter basis, making much of the previous learning less useful for future activity. This quarterly focus also means that long-term planning and learning fall down the priority list. Plus the reasonably rapid turnover of people (and the allure of the new broom scenario – change the team, change the agency etc) doesn't help either. And finally, as a mea culpa on the agency side of things, we do like shiny new things ourselves too. I guess this is partly in our DNA and partly comes from a need to keep impressing clients with fresh thinking and new approaches. Certainly, developing a learning culture (and the systems to underpin it) is now more critical than ever if much B2B marketing is to live up to its potential. I'd love to see more clients adopt the recommendations you suggest. It would be as much a cultural change as a process one.

almost 6 years ago

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Mark Barrett

Great post, I've had previous client side experience where all activity was meticulosly recorded and poured over in meetings, but what I found is that although these processes were in place nobody ever learnt anything, or tried anything new incase they didn't meet targets. Unfortunately, in my experience, when targets are in place, marketing departments tend to focus on the "tried and trusted" rather than explore alternatives and use them to learn.

almost 6 years ago

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Jeff Machado

I definitely see the value in this. The only trick is compliance. Just like with any strategy that has high value, a lot of organizations will read this, think it's a great idea, but ultimately, they'll fail to follow up with it. I guess the best simple, repeatable behavior that could be implemented is asking for at least one paragraph per day in a wiki - not just having a wiki. A valuable wiki is only the result of behaviors over the course of time. 

There also needs to be some review or reward built into this as well. It's human nature that other priorities could take over so there needs to be accountability built into this as well. 

I'm also seeing great prospects for someone taking this, running with it, and creating their own learning culture consulting business. 

Thanks for a great post!

almost 6 years ago

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Mark McClure

Learning cultures take major time and effort from the top to start bearing fruit.

For me, Ricardo Semler's "Maverick" is the utopian version of what learning-inspired teams might accomplish. There's no reason why b2b marketers can't be in the mix too.

In the interim, I'm afraid it may be necessary to make the pain of not using a learning culture outweigh the inertia of hitting those targets in tried and mostely trusted ways.

almost 6 years ago

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Gina Bray

Couldn't agree with this article more.  We've found that, by sharing campaign experiences, whether hugely successful or not across SEO, PPC and News Content teams we've saved time and money for ourselves and our clients.

Source: Should you choose a highly specialised Search Marketing company? | Vertical Leap Blog

almost 6 years ago

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Gina Bray

Couldn't agree more.  We've found that by sharing the experiences of client campaigns across PPC, SEO and news content - and in particular by what has worked and what hasn't - we're saving time and money in-house and giving clients a better service.

almost 6 years ago

Siddharth Hegde

Siddharth Hegde, Founder & Director at Ethinos DigitalSmall Business

Wow this is so bang on. Having worked for some big B2B comp0anies I can safely say that they dont do a good job of capturing best practices and learning from their experiences. And often the thinking is 'if it ain't broke why fix it". So typically what would get documented and created were the very standard type of activities that got the standard predictable type of responses. While smaller companies have the freedom to be much more innovative the are even worse when it comes time to documenting learning and improving on past performance. Most of them seem to reinvent the wheel when ever there is a change in the leadership. With the new marketing leaders changing direction to what ever had worked well for them in the past. In that sense working with an agency for pieces like the strategy & planning definitely make sense.

almost 6 years ago

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Ricardo Molina, Director at BrightBull B2B Marketing

Doug Excellent your Marketing manifesto. Being publicly open about your goals, KPI's is a very bold decision, but surely will get you guys to where you want to be. Very good read in deed and I will be following the progress.

Thanks for being open about this... We all need to be more open with the things we are doing...

almost 6 years ago

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler, Director at VelocitySmall Business Multi-user

Thanks Ricardo. The Open Kimono did feel like a bit of a risk but it's proven to be a really fun, interesting ride that hasn't hurt us at all. And thanks to all for the comments so far -- a really great conversation. @Jason - I take your points about the obstacles to learning. They are many. @Jeff and both Marks – I guess the learning ideal does have to meet reality too. For me, even a little is always a good thing. @Gina – that's what I love about digital: the learning can often be directly applied elsewhere. @Siddharth - I totally agree - a fresh perspective from outside can be absolutely critical.

almost 6 years ago

Neil Warren

Neil Warren, Publisher at 2N Media Ltd - ModernSelling.com

Oh bliss - oh joy!

And can we also try and focus a leeetle bit more on how B2B Marketing Best Practice impacts on B2B Selling Best Practice?

"Traditionally" (see American Marketing Association & Brainshark webinar) this has meant that between 70-90% of marketing collateral goes completely untouched and unused by sales staff.

So we do also need to know whether the "best" sellers (like IBM sales staff who blog) are getting down and dirty with this digital stuff, or should we just leave 90%+ of UK sellers on the phones and in the traffic jams (where they belong!) - and get on with some more "marketing"?

You can also maybe detect what a nice raw nerve you've hit here Doug by that impressive list of re-tweets! Nice one.

Regards - Neil

almost 6 years ago

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Charlotte Graham-Cumming

Great content Doug! Hooray! I too am on a personal mission to improve both the reputation, structure and measurement that goes on in B2B - there's plenty of best practice out there in B2B, unfortunately it's not consistent, demonstrated or even talked about all that much! I'm working with the marketing society, creating a b2b forum in their organisation to help address this, and am working on an industry wide hit-list, will definitely be using this as fodder! Loved the open kimono, it was a great read! It's about time B2B here got the reputation such as it has in the US.

almost 6 years ago

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uday nair

B2B marketing as mentioned in your article becomes more difficult because of the long sales cycle. The problem gets agevated when you are working in niche field. I am facing the same challenge in my current role. Working as Marketing manager in elearning in india i have realised that there marketing never works unless target audience is intersted or is aware of the business you are in..for eg many of my clients doesnt even know what all solutions come under elearning...My B2B marketing strategy has been simply to educate customers rather than focusing on how good my product is..and its paying off.. cutomers are starting to interact and now they know a lot of solutions they were looking actually comes under elearning...I would also like to critic about B2B marketing is especially in my field i find many of the marketing campign misleaing .. not sure if this is intention or not ... but surely i firmly believe a good B2B marketing should be realistic rather than false claims and misleading information.. Things have changed after the recession...

Thanks once again for the post..i could identify myself through it

almost 6 years ago

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Paul Hassels Monning

Great points raised. In B2B business development & marketing one would expect the stronger need to learn, improve and perfect were to pave the way for quicker learning. Why? To catch up with those in B2C and to make a stronger business impact for starters. Personally I do also believe the human tendency to want to move on to try new things, be 'innovative' (over effective) might be as strong in B2C as it's here been desribed in B2B. Documenting lessons learned to me represents an approach reminiscent of the 90s. I'd expect more value by showing progress on a daily basis via eg a Wiki, the Open Kimono initiative described above or by spending more face time as joint marketing/sales/BD team. Look forward to seeing more views on how to get the B2B beast learning for a change.  

almost 6 years ago

Brett Relander

Brett Relander, Founder & President at Tactical Marketing Labs

Constant learning is something that should be part of every companies culture and long term goals, but it's what you do with that knowledge that matters.  I recommend creating an internal employee development plan that includes employees teaching other employees what they've learned. This helps cultivate relationships internally, reinforce learning, and build a community at work. 

Knowledge is the key, but only action gets you through the door.

@BrettRelander

Tactical Marketing Labs

almost 6 years ago

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